Sianne Ngai


On her book Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form

Cover Interview of August 18, 2020


My broadest hope for this book is that readers living in different areas of the world will immediately recognize the aesthetically impoverished, yet oddly compelling and often funny capitalist form I am describing, even if the word “gimmick” doesn’t circulate in the language they speak.

Theory of the Gimmick is also a theory of aesthetic judgment: an ordinary but intersubjectively complex and often rhetorically creative speech act. My hope is that the book brings out this oddly underexamined “side” of aesthetic experience, which is the side that involves a verbal performance.

The gimmick is a fundamentally suspicious judgment, in which we categorically distinguish the false from the true by expressing doubt about “value” being where capitalist society purports it to be. Yet this public exercising of suspicion is often bound up with playfulness and humor, and the pleasures of sharing our aesthetic experiences with others in general.

Theory of the Gimmick thus tries to remind literary scholars, in particular, of how much critical processing of capitalism goes on in ordinary conversation—and in everyday aesthetic experiences. For, over the last decade in this discipline there has been an unrelenting effort to convince people that “aesthetic experience” and “critique” are somehow opposed, and that “critique” is a humorless and fundamentally elitist activity.